Anxious Cuba pushes Canadian trade ties

Cuba is hard at work cementing its trade relationship with its North American partner, Canada. In the midst of Cuba's latest push for more trade with Canada came the news that Jamaica, Canada's Commonwealth Caribbean partner, had broken diplomatic relations with Havana.

That action emphasized Cuba's pressing need these days for a useful friend in the Western Hemisphere, not impoverished allies like Nicaragua or Grenada, but a rich trading partner whose purchases can bring desperately needed hard currency into the dismal Cuban economy. And who is left in this category but Canada?

Though Cuban trade with Canada has continued since Fidel Castro came to power in January 1959, it weakened considerably during the late 1970s, because Canada opposed Dr. Castro's African military adventures.

During 1977 and '78, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's government, considered very close to Castro after Mr. Trudeau's successful Cuban visit of 1976, terminated its Cuban aid program, then expelled a small handful of senior diplomats from the Cuban Embassy. The reason for the expulsion was never fully made public.

That kind of breach placed a new distance between Cuba and Canada, the only source of North American-style machinery left to Castro since the US blockade against the island began two decades ago.

But Castro cannot pay for the machinery unless Canadian trade and tourism with Cuba also increase, hence the need for the current trade drive concentrating on Toronto, Canada's largest financial and commercial center.

Cuba's suave ambassador, Carlos Amat, brought his entire Canadian diplomatic team with him here: his senior embassy officials from Ottawa, his Toronto consulate general, and officials from Cuba's large trade mission in Montreal.

The Cuban presence has never quite left Toronto, despite Castro's growing international unpopularity. Most of the estimated 40,000 Canadians who have vacationed in Cuba since the early 1970s on one- and two-week bargain tours, come from this affluent city and smaller cities in southern Ontario's industrial communities.

Ambassador Amat, previously ambassador at large in Havana's Foreign Ministry and before that dean of humanities at the University of Havana, is trying to put more items on its sales list to Canada. Already, Cuba's oceangoing bulk sugar carriers, modern Japanese-built vessels, unload large raw sugar cargoes at Toronto's waterfront.

But the ambassador wants to diversify Cuban exports to Canada away from traditional raw sugar sales.

Cuban seafood lines, among the most succulent in the Western Hemisphere, are also high on the list. In the mid-1970s when the Cuba-Canada trade pattern reached a record $275 million, seafood had outpaced tobacco products as Cuba's second-largest export to this country. Cuban cigars are now selling here at sky-high prices and are in short supply because of this year's severe farm blight.

Ambassador Amat and his trade team especially want Canadians to buy more fresh Cuban fruits and vegetables, a very tough market for them to crack since it is dominated by efficient United States agribusiness firms trucking produce to Canada from Florida and California.

An expansion in Cuban trade with Canada will depend more on the Cubans than their exasperated Canadian customers - who don't share US hatred of Castro's regime, but have had trouble coping with uncertain Cuban delivery dates.

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